Coming to terms

I have no idea what it’s like to be pregnant. 

And for the most part, I have no idea what’s it like to have cancer, or to have my parents die in front of me. 

Perhaps the worst thing we can say to someone in that moment is the truth. Our truth, that “everything is going to be okay.” Because it is not okay, at least not for them. 

In that moment of an instance, our good intentions can cause pain and suffering. And what’s worse? We’ve closed the door to actually allowing  someone to ask for help and making it difficult for us to learn what they might actually need. 

We’re not wired to walk in someone else’s shoes. It’s not our first instinct. So when we extend our heart and our feelings to another, when we imagine what it must be like to be them, we expose ourselves to risk. The risk of feeling bruised, or of losing our ability to see the world from just one certain point of view.

It’s easier to walk on by, to compartmentalise, and to isolate ourselves.

Or we can begin with this… “I’m so sorry. I cannot imagine how it’s like for you and it must be really difficult. I just want to let you know that I’m here. I am here for you.”

Show up with our presence and empathy, keeping our judgement and clever solutions to ourselves. 

Pray that one day they will come to terms with reality, a friend by their side. It’s difficult, but it’s precisely what someone might need from you. 

For the love of coincidence

The thing about coincidence is that human beings love it.

We notice something interesting, then create an explanation, and that becomes part of us.

You found someone who listens to an unknown artist that your grandfather loves, and that you love too. And maybe just maybe, both of you have the exact same birthday.

What are the odds! “This must be him. I’m in love.”

It turns out that if I put 25 people into a room, there is more than a 50% chance that 2 people have the same exact birthday.

What are the odds! Well, 50%.

Here’s why you need to worry about coincidence: human beings want explanations, even for totally random events. So we make up stories, then we believe those stories.

So it’s no secret that scientist doesn’t believe every explanation that is thrown at them. They are skeptic precisely because they know that it’s easy for them to lie to themselves.

Richard Feynman, the scientist of scientists, famously said, “You should never, ever fool anybody and you are the easiest person to fool.”

So they go a step further and try hard to falsify their own theory. And even then, they still get it wrong. Remember the days where we are told to eat more bread?

I begin with this. Coincidences are real, and coincidences don’t matter. Coincidences make a good love story, but it might not be a good reason to sign on the dotted line.

Reconsidering the Singapore Civil Servant’s bonus

Civil servants are getting their lowest bonus since 2009. And they are not happy. 

Of course, they are not happy. Diligent and smart as they are compared to the previous year (or perhaps more), they are getting a pay cut.  

The message comes through, loud and clear. “No matter how hard I work, it would not move the needle. The organization is too big and my work don’t matter”. 

Perhaps (you think that) anyone should just be happy receiving any bonus at all. But after getting an extra cheque for the last 10 years, it’s easy to get used to it. 

So, it’s not hard to extrapolate that and do the bare minimum. Get paid, go home and get on with life. The life of the “iron rice bowl”.

Consider PayPal Fraud Prevention department. It costs a financial institution a lot of money when fraudulent charges are made, because they often have to eat the cost. So this department works to make the number of fraudulent charges go down at the same time keeping expenses low. Which sounds great until you realise that the easiest way to do this is to flag false positives, and provide little or no fallback when a mistake is made. Stories of good (or great) customers being totally shut down, sometimes to the point of bankruptcy, are legion. There may be people at Paypal who care about this, but the security people don’t. That’s because they’re not measuring the right thing.

And this department has no incentive to fix this interaction, because ‘annoying’ is not a metric that the bosses have decided to measure. Someone is busy watching one number, but it’s the wrong one.

As any organization grows and industrializes, it’s tempting to simplify things for the whole. Find a goal, make it a number and incentive it until it gets better. 

Here’s an experiment. Write an alternative bonus scheme that measures the things that people can impact with their individual effort. For recruiting, it could be the percentage of offers accepted. For engineering, it could be the percentage of tickets closed. Present the 2 bonus scheme (old and new) for new hires to choose. Measure the difference in productivity – soon the increase in productivity will pay for itself.

Incentives are superpowers. Unless you’re busy rewarding the wrong things – measuring what’s easy to measure as opposed to what’s important. 

(And if you’re working in the organisation where you care, take this article, gather a group and talk about it. Because real change starts only from the people who care, doing work that matters.) 

My 2019 Retrospective

My 2019 Retrospective

We spent most of our lives making money, and once we have enough, a new chapter of life begins.

“First, you get rich. Then, you get healthy. And lastly, you get peace.”

This year, I arrived at making enough. I found an equilibrium between my income and my desires. Now, I choose the job I want, with people I enjoy, when I want. And the ability to fire clients that I don’t enjoy working with.

This is by no means that I am wealthy or that I am flying business class. But neither do I want to.

“People living far below their means enjoy a freedom that people busy upgrading their lifestyles just can’t fathom."


(Previous retrospective: 2018)

What’s a retrospective?

A retrospective is when you look back on past events to identify what worked…and what didn’t work. A retrospective helps you celebrate your wins and identify your weaknesses. It helps you learn from the past and correct for the future.

How to do your own personal retrospective

To do a personal retrospective, you simply pick a particular project or time period and ask yourself the following questions:

  • What’s working? (“What did I do right? What am I proud of?”)
  • What’s not working? (“What could be improved? What are my biggest opportunities for growth?”)
  • How can I fix what’s not working for a better result? (“What specific things can I focus on next time?”)

Then you spend 15-30 minutes writing about each.

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The invisible weapon

Words are dangerous. Hiding in plain sight, they are so familiar that we have become flippant with our use of them.

When we are little, we knew the power of words. The word “no” could stop us from doing almost anything. And we can use it to stop almost anything to be done to us.

But as we grew, we stop paying close attention.

Last month, I wrote about Junk Dating. Although catchy, it is not entirely accurate. I could named it bulk dating, or dating by numbers, but I didn’t. And it turned out that some of my past dates (who became dear friends) read the article and believe they are junk. Because after all, I didn’t put a ring on their finger.

The whole “sticks and stones” metaphor can be dangerous. When a stone can bruise, you will heal from it. But when a torrent of words undermines your view of what’s possible, you might never recover.

While I carelessly throw away my own words, my dates also carelessly hoard those words.

Words matter. They can hurt, injure and be mean. Or they can open doors, light a path and make a difference. Your choice.

(P.s. None of my past dates are junk. Junk Dating is merely a process of finding out what I want, and what works for me.)